One of the obvious advantages to working, predominantly, close to home is that I have regular contact with my subjects and in doing so puts me in the position of visiting the location regularly and at the drop of a hat, when conditions are favourable. I was out for a stroll on a favourite part of the North Downs just 10 minutes from where I live at the end of last month. Fragrant, bee and man orchids had all gone over and, in their place, pyramidals were in abundance as were burnet moths and marbled white butterflies. It had been a long time since I photographed the latter but with so many present and so close to where I live it seemed the perfect opportunity to catch up with them.
Photography was carried out at dawn and dusk when not only are they easier to get close to but conditions are more akin to how I wanted to portray them. Upon arrival, a low mist hugged the hills and spider’s webs festooned in dew linked grass stems and as I departed at dusk, the mist would slowly return with just the bark of a fox from a nearby copse breaking the silence.
I’m not going to beat around the bush, in my humble opinion, THE most useful function to be added to a digital camera for landscape and close-up photography, is Live View! Notice, I said digital camera. Such things as depth of field preview and mirror lock-up have been around for years but LV is an entirely digital add-on. Before LV, focusing, even with sophisticated AF lenses, was troublesome. AF’s wonderful for action but when shooting close-up where the focus on small areas has to be bang-on, I would never rely purely on autofocus. Why? Well, take this scenario, illustrated with the image, below, of a dew laden wood anemone photographed at sunrise. I wanted to shoot it with the lens wide-open (f2.8) to limit the depth of field and create something a little different to the standard “anemone with petals open” shot. It was imperative that the very front lip of the petal was to be sharp and no-where else. Not halfway up the flower but right at the front! With the lens on AF, it may get me close but I couldn’t be sure. You can always check the image after the shot to check, can’t you? To a degree, yes, but not with any certainty. With LV, I can magnify the image on the monitor and focus with confidence.
And here’s how I did it while photographing this chalkhill blue butterfly. There were numerous factors which forced me to use a relatively wide aperture. The proximity of the background and the nagging breeze. Chalkhill blues are tiny so, once again, it was essential that the focus was very accurate. Unlike the shot of the anemone where, due to the depth of the image, I didn’t have to parallel the camera to the flower, in this instance, I simply had to get the camera back completely square on both the vertical and horizontal axis, if I was to be certain of edge to edge sharpness.
After much jigging around of the tripod, I composed the image and got the camera as parallel as I could. I then activated LV.
Using the + (magnify function), as if you were magnifying the image when reviewing, I zoomed all the way as far as it would go and then, using the scroll wheel, moved the magnified area to the head of the butterfly. With the lens on MF I carefully focused on the eye. When this was done, I scrolled to the tip of the wing.
If the wing required a focus adjustment, I knew the camera wasn’t quite parallel so, depending on whether the wing tip was closer to or further from the plane of focus, I would adjust the tripod accordingly. This exercise was repeated on all parts of the butterfly until I was happy it was pin sharp throughout. Now, if the conditions were perfect….still, background several metres away, I could have used a smaller aperture of, say, f16 and allowed a little for parts of the wing to be fractionally out of alignment since there was every chance the depth of field would have taken care of it. But, with such a wide aperture, you just can’t take those kind of risks. Once you are done with LV, de-activate it and, if you have it, use mirror lock-up. If you take a picture with a slow shutter speed of around 1/15 sec with LV activated, there is every chance your image will have signs of vibration, resulting in a soft image. There are few disciplines in photography more technically demanding than close-up. Technique, technique, technique. A photographer with inferior equipment using a solid tripod, utilising LV focus, mirror lock-up and a cable release will invariably produce superior results than a photographer with the most up to date gear using a sloppy technique.
LV for landscape work can be equally useful. For the most part, AF works perfectly well on focusing on a specific spot that you want to be sharp. But, when light levels are low and the subject you want to focus on lacks contrast (AF lenses require contrast or an edge to lock-on), autofocus struggles! So, all you need to do is the same as above. Turn off AF and activate LV, magnify the image, scroll down to the part of the scene you want to focus on and do so manually. De-activate LV and use mirror-lock up. Simple! Below are a few more examples where I used Live View to be sure of accurate focusing.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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